City Building | December 2012

Sometimes the best approach to city building is just to steal good ideas.

During last summer’s International Downtowns Summit in Hamilton, I spoke on a panel with Brian Payne, CEO of the Indianapolis Community Foundation. After the conference, I invited Brian to lunch at La Cantina and we had a long, pleasant conversation over good food and a little red wine.

We were struck immediately by the many similarities between our cities. Both were major industrial manufacturing centres that slid into decline in the 1970s. Each had downtown cores that struggled as people and money fled to the suburbs.

Indy was amalgamated with its suburbs in 1970, just a few years before Hamilton-Wentworth Region was created here. Indianapolis decided in the late 1970s to re-conceive its downtown as a centre for amateur sports. Impetus for this transformation was a generous grant from the Lilly Foundation (of Eli Lilly fame), much of it dedicated to urban renewal. A downtown hockey/basketball arena was built in 1974, followed by a velodrome in 1982.  Indy gambled on a downtown football stadium, during a time when most cities were building stadiums in the suburbs. The bet paid off with an NFL team relocating from Cleveland to the Hoosier Dome in 1984. (In 2008, Indianapolis Colts moved to the new Lucas Oil Stadium, also in downtown Indianapolis, when the Hoosier Dome was demolished to expand the Indiana Convention Centre.)

The 1987 Pan American Games was a turning point that solidified the city’s emergence as an urban centre specializing in sport and the arts. This momentum was further cemented with the construction of Victory Field in 1996 and Bankers Life Fieldhouse in 1999.

But Indy civic leaders recognized that culture was as important economically as sport. So the city invested in a number of cultural facilities, including: the Indiana Theatre (built 1927, renovated 1979-80 to host the Indiana Repertory Theatre), the Phoenix Theatre (built 1983), the Hilbert Circle Theatre (built 1916, reopened 1984 to host the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra), the Walker Theatre (built 1927, restored 1983-8), the Indianapolis Artsgarden (built 1995), and the Indianapolis Museum of Modern Art (founded 2001).

In 2001, Indy established a Cultural Development Commission, “to develop ways to position Indianapolis nationally and globally as a cultural destination city, as well as to make Indianapolis a city of choice for the world’s best talent when looking for a place to live and work.”

The Commission promoted six cultural districts on walkable downtown streets that featured arts, cultural, heritage, sports and entertainment facilities. But they kept hearing that the districts were isolated from one another and needed to be connected.

Inspired by the Monon Trail, a 16.7 kilometre multi-use rail trail connecting Indianapolis and neighbouring Delphi, the Commission proposed a multi-use urban trail connecting the cultural districts in downtown Indianapolis and tying into the regional greenway network.

The Cultural Trail is an urban walking and cycling path that connects five of the city’s six cultural centres – Fountain Square, Indiana Avenue, Mass Ave, The Canal & White River State Park, and the Wholesale District – and features several Trail-commissioned public art projects.  It runs in a large square around the downtown core and along the Canal, with spurs running outside the core to the northeast, southeast and west to link to the city’s extensive network of greenways.

The project cost some $65 million in total. $17 million came from a generous donation by Gene and Marilyn Glick, with the balance coming from the Central Indiana Community Foundation and the City, State and Federal governments. Funding was in place by 2007, and the entire 13 km route is scheduled for completion this year.

A key innovation was the Commission asking the simple question: ‘What are Indy’s destinations? Then they designed a transportation network around the answer.

Now consider the potential to establish something similar in Hamilton. At a stroke, we could build a continuous downtown bike lane network knitting together our various cultural and sports amenities: The Art Gallery of Hamilton, Hamilton Place, the Convention Centre, Whitehern, the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, Copps Coliseum, the James North arts district, Dundurn Castle, the Workers Arts and Heritage Centre, the West Harbour and Waterfont Trail, McMaster Museum of Art, Theatre Aquarius, 270 Sherman North and Ivor Wynne Stadium.

Readers with long memories might recall my attempt as an elected leader, to make Hamilton more bike-friendly back in 1993. Regional Council approved bike lanes (as well as some rail trails) on Main and King from West Hamilton to the downtown, but Council panicked and removed them just six months later, after a cyclist was knocked off his bike in a highly publicized collision.

In 1993, a bike lane network in Hamilton might have been ahead of its time. But surely that isn’t true today, especially as part of an integrated effort to link and grow Hamilton’s emerging cultural industries? With the City of Hamilton getting to unveil its long range transportation plans early in 2013, it is an ideal time for us to rethink the priority given to walking, biking and transit.

Hopefully, civic leaders in here will agree that sometimes stealing is ok, and commit to making a Cultural Trail a key ingredient in Hamilton’s continuing renewal.

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